ARUN RATH, HOST:
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. Any kid who saw that 1971 film fell in love with Wonka's world, even though it could be disturbing. Some of us fell in love with it because it was so disturbing. One kid in particular was so smitten, that he carried those songs with him throughout his own almost three-decade recording career.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE IMAGINATION")
PRIMUS: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls - the chocolate room.
RATH: Les Claypool leads the avant-garde funk band Primus, a supremely weird band. We dare you to play this on the radio weird. And somehow in the '90s, they were all over radio. So for a band that wears its weirdness quite proudly, this should come as no shock. For their new album, they've adapted just about every song from "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory" into the style of Primus.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURE IMAGINATION")
PRIMUS: (Singing) Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you'll see into your imagination.
RATH: I spoke with Les Claypool about the first time he saw the film in theaters.
LES CLAYPOOL: I was a young fellow. I was in grammar school. And it was the perfect thing for a kid my age. And I went on to collect all the box tops off of Captain Crunch or whatever it was so that I could get my Willy Wonka chocolate factory kit, where you melt down chocolate chips into these little molds that are shaped like Oompa Loompas and wrap them in foil and then hand them out to the kids at school. I did the whole routine.
RATH: I remember seeing that as a kid and thinking that wow, that's amazing they're letting me watch this. Something kind of slipped past the grown-ups. This is messed up.
CLAYPOOL: Well, when the centipede crawls across the guy's face, that's pretty creepy. You know, but the thing is watching the film, then that introduced me to that world. And I - of course I had to start reading Roald Dahl. And I read the two "Chocolate Factory" books. And they're pretty dark -
CLAYPOOL: - And sinister and creepy, especially "The Great Glass Elevator." So, you know, for me, us taking on this project wasn't so much hey, we're going to go and do, you know, our interpretation of "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory" as much as it was my interpretation of my interpretation as a kid of that world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CANDY MAN")
PRIMUS: Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew. Cover it in chocolate or a miracle or two, the Candy Man.
RATH: When did you decide that you wanted to do your own take on this?
CLAYPOOL: Well, there was a thought - I'd always had that "Candy Man" - my take on "Candy Man" in my head - that I'd had that for a while. And we were talking about the next project to do. We were talking about taking on some form of sacred cow. So every New Years, we have a themed New Year's event. And so this last year we said well, let's do "Primus And The Chocolate Factory." And we'll do a couple of the songs from the film. And then a couple of songs turned into more than a couple songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WONKATANIA")
PRIMUS: (Singing) There's no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going.
RATH: Were any of the songs particularly difficult to arrange for the band? Or were they all something where you could find that kind of demented quality that you can pull out of them?
CLAYPOOL: What are you trying to say? You know, to be honest with you, it all fell together surprisingly easy. The hardest thing I had was doing the vocal on "Golden Ticket" because I would do it and then I kept thinking I sound like a guy trying to be an old man singing this song. And then I sort of stumbled across this character of being like an elderly Elvis impersonator and that's kind of how I approached it from that point. And then it just clicked and away I went.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN TICKET")
PRIMUS: (Singing) I never had a chance to shine, never a happy song to sing. But suddenly half the world is mine, what an amazing thing. 'Cause I've got a golden ticket, I got a golden ticket.
RATH: I'm speaking with Les Claypool of Primus. Their new album is "Primus And The Chocolate Factory." Let me throw a Wonka quote at you, "a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men." And that's something that makes me think of Primus. You guys have serious chops as musicians, but whimsy's never too far away.
CLAYPOOL: Yes, and it's been a source of joy and a source of criticism over the years at times. You know, I think I went through a period there where I became a bit self-conscious because I remember in the early days, people would ask me in interviews, don't you ever worry about being taken seriously? And I would say no, you know? I don't worry about that all until some people started not necessarily taking us seriously. And then, you know, after we did the "Big Brown Beaver" song. And all of a sudden, there was a contingent of folks out there that just thought we were a joke band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WYNONA'S GOT HERSELF A BIG BROWN BEAVER")
PRIMUS: (Singing) Wynona's got herself a big brown beaver and she shows it off to all her friends. One day, you know, that beaver tried to leave her, so she caged him up with cyclone fence.
CLAYPOOL: So you become a little self-conscious of it. You read a few reviews and that stuff can affect you. It's like watching, you know, some of your favorite comedians over the years start taking on serious roles and losing that jolly edge or the edge that got them to the place where they were. And I think we kind of went through a little bit of that.
RATH: You think this is bringing you back to the jolly?
CLAYPOOL: I think just in general over the past 10 years, I haven't really given a [bleep] about any of it. So, you know, I grew up with stuff like "Willy Wonka" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and some of these Disney musicals - early Disney musicals. And, you know, it made me write from the perspective of a lot of these characters. You know, being a big fan of Frank Capra and Elia Kazan and Terry Gilliam and seeing these films with these extremely colorful, poignant characters, that's how I've always tried to convey whatever the hell it was I was trying to say in the music. And even though a lot of times just like on this "Wonka" recording, these characters can be sinister and tragic, you know, there's a lighthearted element to them - or a colorful element.
RATH: I've heard you talk about being inspired by Gene Wilder. Have you ever met him?
CLAYPOOL: I never have, no.
RATH: Do you know if he knows about this record?
CLAYPOOL: I doubt that he does (laughter).
RATH: Because apparently when, you know, the 2005 remake came out, he was pretty offended by that. He called it an insult.
CLAYPOOL: Yeah, I heard about that as well. And there's a good possibility there's going to be some folks insulted by this as well. You know, I think that's the folly of taking on a sacred cow. You know, you're going to please some folks and you're going to piss off some folks. But I hope I don't piss off Gene Wilder because he's definitely a, you know, for his '70s hairdo alone, he is a champion.
RATH: That's Les Claypool, founding member of the band Primus. Their new album is called "Primus And The Chocolate Factory." It won't come out until Tuesday. The suspense is terrible, Les. I hope it'll last.
CLAYPOOL: (Laughter) Yeah.
RATH: You get the line.
CLAYPOOL: Good quote.
RATH: Les Claypool...
CLAYPOOL: I like it.
RATH: Thank you so much.
CLAYPOOL: Yeah, no worries. Good talking to you.
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